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Horse Sense: “Lay a Little Heavy on the Business Side”

by Callie Oettinger on July 4, 2014

Conductor Zubin Mehta laughs with singers Dolly Parton and William "Smokey" Robinson during a reception for the Kennedy Center honorees in the East Room Sunday, Dec. 3, 2006. Photo Credit: Eric Draper. Caption Credit: The White House.

Would you have said no to Elvis Presley?

Imagine Elvis calling you back in the day.

He loves a song you’ve written, wants to record it—and even invites you down to the recording session.

You’re excited and start telling your friends the news—and then (and this is a big AND THEN), a few days before the session, Colonel Tom Parker (a.k.a. Elvis’ manager) calls you up and says:

“Now, you do know that Elvis is recordin’ your song. And you do know that Elvis don’t record anything that he don’t publish or at least get half the publishin’ on.”

Would you give him at least half the rights? It’s Elvis after all and working with him would be a good thing, right?

If you were Dolly Parton and the song was I Will Always Love You, you would have replied:

“I can’t do that. This song’s already been a hit with me. And this is in my publishing company. And obviously this is gonna be one of my most important copyrights. And I can’t give you half the publishing, ’cause that’s stuff that I’m leavin’ for my family.”

And then decades later, you’d still be receiving payment for that song, right on through Whitney Houston’s recording of it becoming one of the best-selling singles of all time.

* * *

I’ve heard the Parton-Presley-Parker story dozens of times–but not as many times as I’ve heard of other artists who made the opposite decision, and do give away the rights to their work. When I caught an interview Dolly did with Dan Rather (from which the quotes above were pulled), I tuned in for another telling of it. This time I also caught her telling another story I know well—of artists who only focus on the art and not on the business—as well as a decision I wish every artist would make: to “lay a little heavy on the business side.”

“My daddy could not read nor write. Never had a chance to go to school. But my daddy was so smart. . . . I watched him maneuver, I watched how he would—he could trade and barter. And, you know, it’s like he would . . . What do they call it, good horse sense or horse tradin’? They call it street smarts if you’re from the city, but good old country horse sense. My daddy was so smart. And I just watched him through the years. And my daddy was also one of those people that was really willin’ to work. He was up all the time, up early, havin’ to farm before he went to work on construction or doin’ whatever he had to do to, to keep food on the table. But he always just managed to make some of the best deals and some of the best choices. And I . . . I was very influenced by that.

“Now, I got my music from my mother’s side of the family. And most musical people, musicians don’t wanna work at anything else. So, I got my work ethic from my dad. I got my music from my momma. And I tried, in the early days when, when I would think about it and I started seein’ that I could make money at this, I thought, “Well, they do call this the music business. So, why don’t I kinda lay a little heavy on the business side of things?” So, I got to thinkin’, you know, what I should do to make it really profitable, not just to sing and just let the money roll in and let it be gone before you think about it. So, I started thinkin’ about . . . keepin’ my publishing to myself . . . you know, publishin’ my own songs, startin’ my own publishin’ company and just different things like that that I thought would be, you know, smart business. So, through the years, I have been lucky and made some really good choices. But I’ve got a lotta good people that’s helped me a lot, too. I owe a lot of my success to a lot of smart people.”

Wrapped into fewer words: Dolly knew that many musicians only focused on the music, but she also knew the power of solid horse-sense infused business decisions. That’s the difference between artists with long-time successful careers and those who never break through. Yes, talent plays a huge role, too, but business is a major factor. How many artists can you name who broke through on talent and then went bankrupt and faded fast?

We don’t all have daddy’s like Dolly’s, imparting horse sense wisdom on us, but we need it just the same. We need it to get us toward our “all-for-love” projects.

Steve has talked about doing “one for love and one for money” in the past—taking on those gigs that are just for pay, so that you can pay the bills and fund time to develop your craft. But what if all you did was your craft? What if your craft generated enough for you to live off of it?

In surfboard artist Drew Brophy’s case, “painting 10-15 surfboards a day helped him to get really good and to develop a very strong style of his own,” said his wife Maria. “If Drew had been working in another field and only painting in his spare time, he would have been wasting his talent.”

His craft advanced because he put in the time. He had the time because he focused on the business and sold his work.

There’s another piece to this, too. If you value your work and make those hard decisions, others will value you, too. (Look toward the beginning of Maria Brophy’s article “Why Artists Should (Not) Be Paid for Their Artwork“ for an example, and read on down to the end). For all those people who thought Dolly was crazy for turning down Elvis at the time, I’m betting her decision garnered her an even greater respect from an even larger group of people.

While some artists have broken through on talent alone, the ones with the long-time successful careers are most often the ones who took time to “lay a little heavy on the business side.”

Twenty years ago this summer, a contract commercial producer for Mattel Toys offered me this advice when I was a summer intern in Mattel’s El Segundo, CA, corporate offices: “It’s called show business, not show art.” I never forgot that line—and set about thinking about the business side.

Laying heavy on the business side is a force multiplier when paired with hard work and natural gifts.

If you don’t have that horse sense that Dolly spoke about, get some. It’ll take you a long way.

(One more reason you need horse sense, via John Scalzi. Read it)

Note: This post is a part of the “What It Takes” series, running on Steven Pressfield’s blog.

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